After his business was torched, distillery owner paying it forward to other Lake Street businesses
Pallets of scorched and damaged bottles; charred shipping boxes; a heat-warped user’s manual. Remnants of three fires set at Du Nord Craft Spirits during the riots that followed the death of George Floyd.
“We walked in there and it was that burned smell of everything, and it was like, everything was trashed,” recalled production manager Maria Kustritz. “I thought, okay, this is going to be a hell of a cleanup job.”
Nobody was hurt but the flames had swept through the warehouse.
There was also damage from the sprinklers that soaked everything.
For owner Chris Montana, who started the business in 2013, the destruction prompted a rollercoaster of emotions.
“We woke up after this place being set on fire, then my apartment set on fire the next day,” he said. “We woke up the day after that, and saw we had two different GoFundMe’s raising money, probably $30,000 to $40,000 had been raised.”
But after his inventory — 1,000 liters of alcohol were torched, the rest stolen — Montana jumped into action.
He and his staff cleaned out his fire-damaged warehouse, and he and his wife Shanelle came up with a plan to feed the community ravaged by the riots: a food bank.
The lines were out the door.
"Chris was like, now we have an empty warehouse and nobody in this neighborhood has a grocery store,” Kustritz said. “Their M.O. is to take the anger and sadness and try to turn it into something productive.”
Now, months later, Du Nord is selling product again.
The distillery has sold 9,000 bottles of vodka and gin so far this year.
But there was a surprise item that kept Du Nord afloat during March, April and May, when the pandemic hit — and everything that came after.
Twenty thousand gallons of hand sanitizer, half of it sold, the other half donated.
“The sanitizer kept us from folding early,” Montana said. “That was keeping us up, when George Floyd was murdered.”
But Montana wanted to do more.
After the food bank was launched, he began a riot recovery fund.
"The donations were like $5, $10, $20,” Kustritz said quietly. “And I’m sure that was one of the times I started crying during that couple of weeks."
The Du Nord Foundation has now distributed over $400,000, in grants of $15,000 each.
That’s enough to help 26 Lake Street businesses in need.
Montana said he’s grateful for the 11,000 people who donated.
"This work is the therapy that’s gotten me through this,” he said. “We stayed busy and we stayed busy doing things that warmed the soul."
Montana said the recovery fund has raised well over three-quarters of $1 million.
But the foundation has received $1.6 million in requests, about double the amount coming in.
Montana is hoping to restart the food and supply bank soon, and is scouting for a new distillery location.
As far as his own business, reopening the cocktail room and other public areas, he’s not sure yet.
"There’s a lot that needs to happen here,” Montana said. “And the $15,000 we’re able to write, for a lot of folks, that’s a drop in the bucket. We hope that it did some help, but a lot more is needed to really get these businesses back on their feet."